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Lionel Messi’s stinker against Holland, explained

Jul 9, 2014, 9:13 PM EDT

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It was, in the purest sense, a match neither side wanted to lose.

Holland and Argentina, both within a sniff of the World Cup final, had clear defensive objectives heading into their semifinal clash on Wednesday night.

Argentina’s objective: prevent Arjen Robben from being Arjen Robben.

Holland’s objective: prevent Lionel Messi from being Lionel Messi.

Ultimately, both game-plans ended in success as the two stars were prevented from scoring during regulation and extra time. But whereas both found it difficult to get into the match, it was Robben who shook off the cobwebs to become the danger man everyone has grown to fear.

After a first-half where Javier Mascherano, Enzo Perez, Martin Demichelis and Marcos Rojo beat, battered and double-teamed Robben out of the match, the second-half saw the Dutch wonder assess his situation and make changes to find the ball. With Jordy Claise on for Nigel de Jong, the Dutch began spraying balls out wide and it clicked for Robben: get out of the middle and demand the ball.

He went wide right, then wide left and then back to the right. He looked to dart up the wings as well as take his dribbles on the diagonal. Was it a notable performance for Robben? Not particularly. But he kept trying, kept searching for answers and eventually, was rewarded with two glorious chances to score in the 91st and 96th minutes only to be denied by the brilliant Javier Mascherano.

Messi had similar problems with worse results. He had to deal with guys like Bruno Martins Indi, who was all too happy to thump Messi any chance he had, and Nigel De Jong, who hasn’t seen a shin he doesn’t like to crack. La Pulga’s true nemesis, however, came in the form of a heaving Ron Vlaar who played out of his mind making a handful of sensational slide tackles on the Argentine.

The physical approach was nothing that Messi hadn’t seen in every match he’s played in over the last ten years. The problem was, he let it get to him. It wasn’t just infringements that prompted Messi to throw his hands in the air, it was legal tackles.

His frustration was palpable. And yet, instead of searching for solutions, Messi seemed content standing on the center-backs and simply drawing defenders away from the ball. Which is a fine technique in small doses but for prolonged periods of time? When you’re supposedly the best player in the world?

That’s not good enough.

When Messi did look to see more of the ball it was always through the middle of the pitch where he was promptly swarmed by defenders. And when that didn’t work, well, that was it. He rarely went wide. He didn’t look to change his link-up approach with Gonzalo Higuain or Sergio Aguero. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, that Messi was out of ideas.

Of course, Messi is never out of ideas. But the fact that he didn’t seem bothered to change his approach – to demand the ball, to ask for more from his teammates – was puzzling. How could his influence become so dulled on the one stage he had waited to so long to perform on?

Just 24 hours before the match news broke that a friend of Messi, Argentine journalist Jorge Lopez, had died in a car crash in Sao Paulo.

And just like that, the analysis of Messi’s anti-influence comes to a screeching halt.

So often we expect professional athletes to play through news and events that deeply affect their lives. Is it reasonable? No. But because the greats are just that, legends in human form, we expect them to rise up and conquer no matter what life throws at them.

On Wednesday, Messi faced difficult circumstances and was unable to be the hero we all expect him to be. Thankfully, fate – and four quality penalties – awarded him a second chance. And on Sunday he can prove the semifinal a flash in the pan by going on to stake his claim as the greatest footballer to ever walk the earth.




  1. nodindenver - Jul 9, 2014 at 9:58 PM

    For some reason, I think Hummels and his mates will be prepared for Messi. Question is, will Argentina be prepared to play D against a slew of forwards more talented than what the Dutch had to offer?

  2. dkalev - Jul 9, 2014 at 10:14 PM

    Here is the explanation: he is not as good in this World Cup as he was talked up to be. There; simple. Am I the only one who’s come to this conclusion (yknow, besides other soccer folk who know what’s up)?

  3. jucam1 - Jul 9, 2014 at 10:15 PM

    He’s wildly overrated

  4. The Press Box - Jul 9, 2014 at 10:47 PM

    Good analysis! But here’s my view…

    Messi is exceptional when he is receiving the ball and has other players in attack with him, hence the reason he flourishes at Barcelona. A few times this game we saw him break forward and dish off the ball only to watch his team loose the ball. But really, Messi doesn’t run and instead chooses to conserve his energy. He has played this way since 2012 and has met it with great success. I mean the guy scored 91 goals in a year and after watching every single game that year I have to say that his play style was no different. The only difference is, is that Argentina relies on counter attacking and fast pace attacks and against strong teams like this (after not playing that way for years) it is no surprise that he’s not having the same impact.

  5. simonkulberg - Jul 10, 2014 at 5:42 AM

    I don`t know why this wasn`t published the first time, but Messi has actually run less than Fred in this World Cup and has been entirely static. He`s either been lazy or out of form. Either way he`s been bad and it has been camouflaged from the fanboys by three good shots, a tap in and an assist.
    Just go look at FIFA`s own statistics for distance covered. Michael Bradley ran a lot more with two matches less played. It should be a disgrace and once and for all end the ridiculous claims that Messi is the GOAT. Of course it won`t, but it should. To me the only reason Messi has the stats he has is because he`s been up top for Barcelona during a great side`s domination, which is now ending so his numbers will normalize. As he loses pace he may even turn officially crap, who knows….

  6. herogoesallin - Jul 10, 2014 at 11:04 AM

    he s overrated and he shuts down when its not going his way.

  7. zxlaa - Jul 10, 2014 at 1:24 PM

    Players of this stature are often at a loss in big contests simply because their TEAMMATES don’t play with the proper urgency, and that’s what I thought happened.

    It wasn’t so much Messi not being Messi, it was Messi having very limited options on the ball when he got it. There was nowhere to go, no one making themselves properly available for him.

    It’s difficult to play with vision when your supporting cast is suffering from a lack of resolve and tunnel vision due the pressure of not wanting to be the man who makes the critical error that leads to scoring for the other team.

    Feel free to disagree, but I think BOTH teams showed this characteristic yesterday.

  8. lyleoross - Jul 10, 2014 at 2:43 PM

    Perhaps I am incorrect, but my recollection is that Messi has never had a great WC. In fact, this has been his best. And even here, if you set aside the group stage he looked… well, the numbers speak for themselves; no goals. The notion that Messi didn’t change his approach to meet the tenor of the game may understate the truth. Messi may not have that skill set.

    Barcelona has a system, and that system is built around Messi’s strengths. The players they bring in are meant to play to Messi’s skills, and the system supports him. Argentina doesn’t have that option. They have the players they have and those players don’t necessarily play to Messi’s strengths. This is why he has had a limited impact on the WC. Now, one could argue that they could do more to select players that play to Messi’s strengths, but even then, they don’t have the same pool to select from that Barcelona does.

    If I were to hazard a guess, Messi will have a limited impact on the final game, and Argentina will take a pasting (no not 7-1). That guess is based on what Messi has done both here, and in the past. In the right setting, Messi is brilliant, but in the wrong setting, he’s just a good player. If this supposition is correct, then I would have to argue that like Barcelona, Argentina needs a manager who recognizes Messi’s strengths, and then builds a system that supports that style. Of course if you do that, you are putting all your eggs in one basket.

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